This is my idea of a holiday. I have no meetings for a week, I don't have to think about Futuristic Dystopias or Moby-Dick or The End of the World for a few days, so I can indulge myself and watch a movie like Jules et Jim. It is especially gratifying to see this after watching the stiff, leaden Fahrenheit 451, made a scant three years later. It couldn't possibly be more different and could have used one-tenth of the energy or powers of observation that Jules et Jim has.
I was reading an interview with Woody Allen where he talks about Bullets Over Broadway and how he loved shooting Husbands and Wives with the hand-held shaky-cam jump-cut style but that you couldn't do that with a period piece because people have a certain mindset about how the past should look on film. But that's exactly how Truffaut shoots the same time period in Jules et Jim, tossing in freeze-frames and wild pans and rushed zooms and a dozen other techniques that remind you that you're watching a brand-new movie about events fifty years in the past. The first act of the picture, where Jules and Jim meet Catherine and World War I hasn't happened yet, is so breathlessly (pun not intended -- at least I don't think so) shot and edited and with such quicksilver energy that it takes a moment to realize that everyone is wearing funny clothes and driving vintage automobiles. Truffaut cuts as often as Michael Bay; scenes and images fly by with the speed of fleeting memories. How it was all shot I have no idea, all those shots of adventures glimpsed but not explained. Did Truffaut board all those scenes (did he board anything)? Were they scenes that once had dialogue but got cut out, except for those brief shots? It seems like there are dozens of them.
For those unfamiliar with the movie, Jules and Jim are best friends living la vie Boheme in belle epoque Paris. Jules meets Catherine and they fall in love. Catherine is a capricious, complicated woman who also falls in love with Jim, but events conspire to put her together with Jules. They get married and have a child, but Catherine is restless and inconstant and still wants Jim (among other men). Instead of leaving Jules with the child, they invite Jim to live with them in the Rhine valley. Everyone has the best intentions and is full of love, but they cannot keep from causing each other suffering as their complicated love story unfolds.
Catherine sounds like a handful, doesn't she? And yet, I once knew a woman a lot like her. She was very beautiful and charismatic, loved whoever she wanted to whenever she wanted to for as long as she wanted to, and never gave a thought to how she might be living tomorrow; there would always, it seemed, be someone there to take care of her, give her whatever she needed, indulge whatever whim she might have. I have no trouble buying that such an arrangement might arise between a woman and a pair of of men in Europe between the wars. And such a story could be really pulpy and soapy (if something can be both pulpy and soapy) but Truffaut handles it all with a wonderful dry-eyed realism, with a sympathetic camera and journalistic editing style, letting the story speak for itself.
Imagine my surprise when I learned, elsewhere on the Criterion edition (where else?) that the movie is based on the true story of a clutch of real bohemians in the real Europe of 1914-34 (or so). After watching the thrilling, lyrical movie it's great to watch the documentary included and hear the stories of the children of all these bohemians, who not only don't have particularly bad memories of their parents' unconventional lifestyles but actually mostly idolize them. If they critcise them, it's for their innocence, not their morality.
Because morality is at the center of the story. In the movie, Jules and Jim and Catherine make up their own rules for living from day to day. Life, of course, imposes its own rules, as life will, and the conflict between the characters and the immutable laws of the universe forces a tragic end to their story. It's sort of a metaphor for the whole belle epoch lifestyle, legislating its own morality until the Nazis come along with their own vision of morality, one enforced at gunpoint.
In real life however, Jules's and Jim's and Catherine's lives don't end in 1934. They all go on with their lives, raise children in various places around Europe, make livings in the margins of the literary world, have innumerable other affairs and complicated arrangements (Jim, for instance, after leaving Catherine and Jules, lived with three other women at once, promising to marry "whoever survived"), and live to ripe old ages (Catherine lived to be 96!). Truffaut says that these arrangements must have caused great turmoil and suffering, but his movie is full of joy and life (the tone of which is apparently taken from the novel). He didn't make a cautionary tale, he made a love story.